SUNDAY TELEGRAPH A deadly Afghan battle like none other By Sean Rayment and Tom Coghlan in Kabul Last Updated: 8:55pm GMT 08/12/2007 Operation Mar Kardad (or "Snakebite") was secretly launched early on November 2 - well before dawn. A small British force set off northward from their base in Sangin along Route 611, the dirt track that forms the main highway to Musa Qala, the Taliban's last remaining stronghold in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Troops on foot and in armoured vehicles were ordered to probe the Taliban's defences on the outskirts of the town to discover where they were strongest and weakest - vital intelligence for the battle ahead. The Taliban knew the British would one day attack. Only the date was uncertain. But after a senior Taliban commander defected to President Hamid Karzai's government, Nato chiefs decided the time had come to strike. This weekend, their forces are engaged in a battle like none other since British troops entered Helmand in April last year. More British forces are being used in this action than in any other battle in Afghanistan: anything up to 3,000 of the total force of 7,000 in the country, although commanders refused to be specific. The plan is for the most difficult house-to-house fighting to be left to the soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) which, with British training, has grown from a ragtag collection of volunteers to a professional force capable of holding its own in battle. Using Afghan soldiers to help force the insurgents from Musa Qala is meant to send a message - not just to the Taliban but also to the people of Helmand. The main phase of the operation, which involves thousands of British, US and ANA troops, began last week when Nato forces began to encircle the town. In a series of feints and probing attacks, the British troops from 52 Infantry Brigade, which includes Royal Marines from 42 Commando, soldiers from 2nd Bn the Yorkshire Regiment and the Household Cavalry, began testing rebel defences. The town has been in Taliban hands for almost 10 months, and the insurgents had prepared heavily fortified bunkers and trench positions, protected by minefields. The size of the force inside is un- known. The Taliban say they have more than 2000 fighters, although the British say 300 is a more realistic figure. As Nato forces pushed forwards, the Taliban withdrew in a series skirmishes. Apache attack helicopters, working in pairs, began to destroy enemy positions. Larger compounds were bombed by combat jets. Mortar and artillery barrages threatened any rebels venturing into the open. British commanders call this the "break-in battle". Lt Col Richard Eaton, the Helmand task force commander, said: "We are kicking the door in so that others can enter." Taliban commanders say they have inflicted many casualties on the British and Afghan forces. Although this was denied by the Ministry of Defence, The Sunday Telegraph has established that at least two British soldiers have been killed and several wounded, bringing the total number killed in Afghanistan since 2001 to 86. At dusk on Friday, several hundred US airborne soldiers, flying in on helicopters, swept in to the north of the town, and by yesterday, Musa Qala was completely surrounded. Some time in the next two days, Operation Mar Kardad will enter its final and potentially most dangerous phase when the ANA moves in to flush out the Taliban. British commanders hope that the rebels will flee or surrender, rather than stand and fight because, although the insurgents will lose, it is probable that the ANA - who will be doing most of the fighting - will also suffer heavy casualties. Such is the strategic significance of Musa Qala, however, that it is highly unlikely that the Taliban will surrender without a fight. Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, the main spokesman for the Taliban, who is not in Musa Qala, told The Sunday Telegraph: "We are fighting back with our heavy weapons and with ambushes. "We have air defence facilities with us. If their helicopters come they will face retribution. And we have fedayeen suicide attackers. We have killed about 35 soldiers. Most are Afghan National Army, but a few were foreign soldiers." Mullah Ahmad Muslim, a Taliban commander inside Musa Qala, added: "My soldiers have pushed the British back from the edge of the town. We have seen the bodies of 20 Afghan National Army soldiers. "The fighting goes on, but the British have been pushed back to the desert." British commanders insist they are winning and dismiss the Taliban's claims as "cheap propaganda". Col Eaton added: "The real battle is winning over the people. That is the real prize."